Middle-Class Heroes?
To take on Big Business, the GOP needs more than rhetoric.


Andrew Stiles

As John Fonte of the Hudson Institute recently argued at National Review Online: “Immigration politics is at the heart of the divide between conservative populist groups, on one side, and corporate elites within the GOP on the other,” and it presents a golden opportunity to “seize the moral high ground” from Democrats, whose efforts to cast Republicans as the party of corporate interests have not been unsuccessful. The prospect of the Democrats’ nominating Hillary Clinton, who embodies the corporate-political nexus as much as anyone, could provide even greater impetus for the GOP to take this route.

Republicans concerned about crony capitalism and corporate influence will have a chance to work against them in earnest early next year, when Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) plans to unveil a series of reform proposals designed to level the playing field between big corporations and small businesses by reforming the tax code, the federal regulatory system, and intellectual-property laws. Lee will also take aim at “corporate welfare” — government subsidies, whether direct or indirect, that typically accrue to powerful business interests that can afford to pay armies of lawyers and lobbyists to help secure them.

Earlier this year, Lee offered an outline of what a conservative reform agenda might look like, the first step being “to end this kind of preferential policymaking. Beyond simply being the right thing to do, it is a pre-requisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.” In September, Lee put forward an ambitious tax-reform proposal, targeted at the middle class, that was widely praised on the right.

The senator is uniquely positioned to advance a conservative reform agenda, given his tea-party credentials and, perhaps most significant, his lack of interest in running for higher office. But it remains to be seen how many allies Lee will be able to recruit as he aims to build a policy agenda for Republicans to run on, and hopefully enact, in the coming years.

“Republicans need to start addressing the insecurities of the poor and middle-class, and convince them that conservatism holds the solutions,” says a senior GOP aide. “We can win specific battles like Obamacare when the other side messes up, but that doesn’t mean we’ve won the trust of the American people to run the government. Even if they like what we’re saying, they’ll never trust us if our policies don’t match the rhetoric.”

This is especially important for a Republican party whose ultimate goal should be not only to win elections, but to enact conservative policies, says longtime GOP strategist Pat Shortridge. “It’s wrong to think if we get a Republican president, that solves all our problems,” he says. “A lot of people believe that we want to win elections, but aren’t sure that we want to accomplish things that will help them.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.